3 ways to learn from early Baptists about political theology

May 9, 2018

Many early Baptists were heavily involved in political life, at both local and national levels. For them, political involvement was often a matter of survival—17th century British government, in both England and the American colonies, did not separate church and state.

Anyone who departed in belief or practice from England’s sanctioned state religion, the Anglican Church, was punished in some fashion. One of the first General (non-Calvinist) Baptists in England, Thomas Helwys, was imprisoned after he became a Baptist and wrote about his beliefs, including his conviction that the church and state should remain separate. Helwys was never released, and he died in jail four years after his imprisonment.  

In the American colonies, Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, and John Clarke also faced various punishments for departing from the state-sanctioned Congregationalism of the Bay Colony. While many of the American colonies were founded by Separatists—those who had departed from the Anglican Church due to its corruption and heavy-handedness regarding worship practices—once they received a charter from England’s king, they often did no better at providing religious liberty for their citizens.

3 emphases of early Baptists’ political theology

It was in this environment of state-sanctioned religious opposition that early Baptists developed a thorough political theology. The emphases of these early Baptists are biblically rooted, theologically sound, and still relevant for us today. Here we’ll explore three of them—religious liberty, appropriate political involvement, and the church as the sign of the kingdom.  

1. Religious liberty

Early Baptists emphasized religious liberty as a matter of survival, yes, but they also drew on Baptist theological principles that remain important today. While most Baptists in 21st century America do not experience state-sponsored opposition to their faith, there are still important biblical, theological, and distinctively Baptist reasons to support religious liberty for all.

Religious liberty arises out of the Baptist conviction that every person is individually accountable before God.

Most importantly, religious liberty arises out of the Baptist conviction that every person is individually accountable before God. This conviction lies at the root of other Baptist distinctives like believer’s baptism, congregational polity, and local church governance. With respect to religious liberty, it means that no one (including the state) can or should coerce a person to believe. Individuals are free to believe in or reject the gospel, and, if they are a Christian, to believe in or reject particular denominational distinctives.

Religious liberty for all does not mean that Baptists reject that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone; far from it! Baptists in the 17th century and Southern Baptists today confess that salvation only comes through belief in Christ’s death and resurrection. But we also believe that each individual person has to come to a decision about that good news, and about subsequent doctrinal beliefs, on his or her own. In a Baptist political theology, then, the government cannot and should not force anyone to believe a certain way or to deny his or her convictions.

This Baptist principle also extends to practice. Early Baptists experienced opposition from the British government not only because they differed in belief from Anglicanism, but also because, like other English Separatists, they refused to participate in certain Anglican practices. For instance, early Baptists were imprisoned and fined for their refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer, and for licensing preachers outside of the Anglican authorities. This led early Baptists to insist that religious freedom encompasses not only what an individual believes but also what he or she practices. And, by extension, this includes freedom for churches and other religions comprised of those free individuals.

Today, this means that Baptists can argue for religious freedom for all religions without endorsing or supporting those other religions. Baptist political theology, because of its roots in an affirmation of the individual’s conscience, can be both a champion of religious liberty for all and a champion for personal evangelism to all.

2. Appropriate political involvement

The early Baptists weren’t shy about participating in the political life of their towns, provinces, and (after American independence) nations. In fact, we owe the First Amendment in part to Virginia Baptist John Leland, who wrote regularly to Thomas Jefferson, and maybe also to James Madison. John Clarke spent much of his life petitioning England’s king for a charter for Rhode Island that included a stipulation about religious freedom. Isaac Backus worked diligently in the political arena for religious freedom in Massachusetts before and after the American Revolution.

And after the establishment of the United States of America as a sovereign nation, Baptists continued their involvement in civic and political life, serving in all sorts of public capacities. William Carey worked in India to end the practice of sati. In other words, Baptists have seen the realm of the state as yet another one of life’s spheres in which they are called to participate as faithful Christians.

Baptists today carry on this tradition of appropriate political involvement. We do not read “separation of church and state” as a reason to remove religious life and thought from government, but as a protection of individual consciences, churches, and other religions from intervention by the government. For Baptists, political participation is justified and encouraged by Scripture, which presents God’s calling to new life in Christ as one that encompasses all of life, including life in relation to the state. This doesn’t mean that the Bible gives particular policy positions on a whole host of issues, like health care or traffic laws, but it does mean that God’s wisdom and a Christian’s calling to it includes all of life, even political life.

To put it a bit differently, the church is still the church when it is scattered and not gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day, and it is called to live as such in the midst of the world. Baptists historically have seen this as especially important in relation to caring for “the least of these,” working diligently in civic and political arenas in order to help the poor, orphaned, widowed, and hungry. We could point to Baptist hospitals through the country, or to the SBC’s, and particularly the ERLC’s, consistent work in D.C. throughout the tenures of both Richard Land and Russell Moore to end abortion in the U.S.

3. The church as the sign of Christ’s kingdom

I used the adjective “appropriate” in the previous point because Baptists have historically emphasized that Christ’s kingdom is seen primarily through the local church, not any temporal government. This means that our efforts ultimately should be focused on the local church, the only institution (according to Baptist polity) to which Christ entrusts the keys to his kingdom.

It is in the local church that the things of heaven are bound and loosed on earth. It is in the local church that Christ’s Word reigns supreme visibly, through preaching and through the ordinances. It is in the local church that the lost are called to repentance, that disciples are made, and that the Holy Spirit is present. Baptist political theology thus recognizes that Christians are first and foremost citizens of Christ’s kingdom, and that Christ’s kingdom is visible primarily in the local church. (This, by the way, is another reason that Baptists have long argued for the separation of church and state—the state isn’t the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom on earth.)

But Baptists also acknowledge that we are citizens of earthly nations, in our case the U.S. While the U.S. and all other nations will one day fade away (and face judgment) at the second coming of King Jesus and his eternal kingdom, we are called to be faithful citizens of it in the meantime. Which brings us back to point two: Baptists affirm that we can and should participate in civic life.

Baptist political theology for today

This kind of balanced account was emphasized by the first Baptists and should remain an emphasis in Baptist life today. Baptists can and should participate in the civil and political life of our counties, towns, states, and nations, but we do so while recognizing that these kingdoms are not ultimate—Christ’s is. These kingdoms are not the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom—the local church is. These kingdoms do not bind and loose on earth what happens in heaven—the verbal and visible proclamation of Christ’s Word does. And these kingdoms cannot coerce belief in Christ in any individual—trust in Christ’s saving work only comes through the conviction of the Holy Spirit that leads to repentance and faith.

A Baptist political theology therefore humbly acknowledges Christ’s kingdom as more important than our earthly kingdoms and chastens its expectations for politics accordingly. And it thus focuses its energies on building up the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom, the local church, through evangelism and discipleship. But it also works Christianly in the political arena, as it does in all others, according to Christ’s kingship and call over all areas of our lives.

Matthew Y. Emerson

Matthew Y. Emerson is a Dickinson Associate Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and an ERLC Research Fellow.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24